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“I Made Major Mistakes”–Ex-Seattle Police Chief Admits Response to 1999 WTO Protests Was Too Heavy-Handed

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We speak with Norm Stamper, the police chief of Seattle during the 1999 WTO protests, when police responded to protests by firing teargas and rubber bullets into the mostly peaceful crowd. The protests resulted in 600 arrests and in the eventual failure of the WTO talks. Stamper resigned soon afterward. “I made major mistakes,” Stamper says of his handling of the situation. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Norm Stamper, I just wanted to wrap with a final question about what happened here ten years ago. You know, it’s very interesting to come back to Seattle now in 2009. It was, of course, the end of November in 1999 that the Battle of Seattle took place. You were the police chief here. It might surprise many people to hear the sort of trajectory you’ve gone on now. But I’m wondering about your reflections now ten years later. I mean, this time, ten years later, the global economic meltdown, where the people in the streets ten years ago were really taking on this issue of unbridled corporate power globalizing around the world. What are you thinking today about the reaction of Seattle ten years ago?

NORM STAMPER: Well, clearly, the Battle in Seattle is my legacy. One week out of my thirty-four years defines me as a cop and as a police chief. And I can bemoan the unfairness of that, but it is true for many people; that’s the only way they know me. And I made major mistakes leading up to that week and during that week, and all I can say is that I’m awfully sorry I didn’t do certain things and that I did do other things. Most of that is contained in my book, and I’m grateful for your mention of that book. There is a chapter entitled “Snookered in Seattle.”

Having said that, what was accomplished during that week was to put globalization and anti-globalization into our vocabulary and to put the whole issue on the map. I really strongly believe that the experience during that week framed a whole lot of issues that people didn’t think about at all prior to that time. And I think, as you’ve described it, we’re now reaping what we have sown in the form of unbridled globalization and unfettered free trade. And I think it’s time for all of us in this country, as we attempt to pull ourselves out of this global economic meltdown, to really take a look at what issues of social and economic justice mean within the context of globalization.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Norm Stamper, what’s been the reaction of your colleagues in law enforcement — I know there are many who support your view, but those who worked side by side with you — as you become more outspoken on this issue of reforming the marijuana laws?

NORM STAMPER: Last week in Minnesota, before a state house committee, a committee that is considering medical marijuana, I was accused of disrespecting police officers. I quickly corrected that police chief, who was wearing a yellow tie with the language “police lines, do not cross.” I apologized if I gave the impression, because I have the deepest respect for frontline police officers. They didn’t make these laws. They are victims of the tension and the hostility that is associated with enforcing or prosecuting the drug war. So it’s not our frontline cops that we need to be concerned about.

The vast majority of police officers, I believe, would legalize marijuana today. They have varying views on the other drugs. Many officers, including police chiefs and sheriffs, have whispered their support to me. When I say, “Well, may I quote you?” the response is, “What have you been smoking? No, you cannot do that.”

You know, some have suggested that President Obama’s dismissal of the marijuana issue last week in the online town hall meeting was done because it’s the third rail. Well, we’ve made it that. Americans have, in fact, bought the propaganda of the drug war. We can’t conceive of it as a public health issue, this whole issue of drug use and drug abuse and prevention and education and treatment, as well as enforcement. We need to rethink it. We need to have the courage, the will and sort of the analytical take on the systemic implications that are associated with the drug war and recognize that there is a much better alternative out there. And I think a whole lot of cops understand it. Certainly, the 10,000 members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition get it.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Norm Stamper, though we said “finally” before, just back on that point, when you said you felt you made many mistakes ten years ago, what did you feel was your major mistake at the time?

NORM STAMPER: Not vetoing a decision to use chemical agents, also known as teargas, against hundreds of nonviolent demonstrators. That was on the first morning of the major emergence, if you will, of the conflict, of the hostilities. I honestly believed at that time, and did for five years after my retirement — it was only on book tour and listening to a whole lot of people who were in that city at that time that I concluded that there was an alternative to what we did.

Just quickly, tactically speaking, we had a huge intersection, strategic intersection, through which aid cars and police officers and fire units could not travel if they were needed for any kind of a medical emergency, even unassociated with the World Trade Organization conference. And so, the cop in me blessed that decision. Warning was given. It was announced repeatedly. I personally was present at the time. I walked to the far side of the crowd to make sure that the legal warning that was given through the bullhorn could be heard, that it was clear that the ramifications of disobedience would be understood by all. And I blessed that decision and, as I said, for five years after supported it.

The chief in me, however, should have stepped in and said, “Yes, it is possible that a woman giving birth in an office building or a local hotel, somebody in cardiac arrest on the twenty-seventh floor of the Sheraton, would be difficult for us to reach.” But what really are the odds of that happening? The cop in me said, “Doesn’t matter what the odds are. We need to be available. We need to be ready.” The chief in me should have said, “For the greater good, we ought not to have brought those chemical agents out. We ought not to have, I think, raised the stakes.” I do not fault people at the scene; I fault myself.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Norm Stamper, I want to thank you for being with us. He has written a book about his experiences as a top cop here in Seattle, the police chief during the Battle of Seattle and now a spokesperson for the legalization of drugs, speaking to us via video stream from his home on Orcas Island. His book is called Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing.

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